Kristyn Leach: Namu Farms, the nuances of heritage crops, and weathering the pandemic through community.

Kristyn Leach: Namu Farms, the nuances of heritage crops, and weathering the pandemic through community.

This is part of a series highlighting AAPI individuals bettering the food system. Each person was handpicked for their dedication to creating a more just food system.

Kristyn Leach grows Asian crops in California’s Central Valley. Her focus is on preserving and adapting Korean plants, agronomic wisdom, and culture. She partners with the Namu Restaurant Group, providing their restaurants with produce and working with their chefs and cooks on breeding projects. Leach founded a seed line within Kitazawa Seed Company, the oldest purveyor of Asian vegetable seeds in the United States, called Second Generation Seeds.

You recently started Second Generation Seeds, a collective of Asian American farmers growing and improving heirloom Asian herbs and vegetables. Is this separate from or an extension of Namu Farms? 

Second Generation is an extension of what I do at my farm. It's a place to preserve and evolve Asian crops varieties, while holding them within whole hearted relationships. Seeds are kept alongside the stories, traditions and perspectives that have helped to shape so much biodiversity over centuries.

You talked about starting the Seed Stewards Collective and how that got you through a lot of tough times in 2020. How has the program developed over last year and into 2021?

Seed Stewards started as a program for a small CSA membership, to help provide food to my community during the challenging year that 2020 was, while fostering conversations with each other. Each month we featured a crop, or crop family, and the CSA members received not only produce, but educational curriculum. We set up a way for people to share their own stories and recipes, and encouraged people to interview family and community members. This season we have expanded, to include a cohort of 6 farmers in California and Washington state. Each farmer will highlight a crop and curate content throughout the season. There will be tutorials for growers, cooking demos, and guest panelist presentation. We will also connect with farmers in other countries who are also working for seed sovereignty including Palestine, Japan and Manipur.

Gochu peppers. Image courtesy of Kristyn Leach.

You've talked about your journey to farming and food through the lens of learning more about your Korean heritage and even went to Korea to meet with farmers and activists. Now that you've been farming for over a decade, looking back at your earlier years of discovery, how have your goals in farming and exploring your culture as both a Koaren American and/or Asian American evolved?

Each year is a new opportunity to learn and grow. Each season has it's own challenges, so while I have over a decade of growing many of these crops, you can never tell what's going to happen. But I'm able to make decisions thoughtfully because I am so familiar with these plants, they feel like my closest friends. I've tried to shift from focusing on my own personal experience, which I generally like to keep private, to trying to work collaboratively. I think a lot of people relate to connecting or reconnecting to heritage through food and agriculture, so it's exciting to think of ways to support one another.

After establishing yourself over the years, have you figured out a smooth(er) process for sourcing seeds? Or do you grow all your own seeds now? Through a conversation with Cultural Roots nursery, sourcing seeds sounds like a pretty arduous process to acquire heritage seeds.

I grow most of my seeds at this point. There are some heirloom Korean varieties that are being kept by seed activists that wouldn't be accessible otherwise. But it's hard to access them in the US. Due to various impacts of neoliberalism throughout Asia, many Asian crop varieties are developed by corporate seed entities, and the economic pressures small scale farmers and peasants face in many parts of the world can challenge the continued cultivation of heirlooms. We are trying to work with seed banks and organizations who have banked seed from around the world, and rematriate them to the communities who have historically stewarded them. Seed stored without any community input or insight is vulnerable to the blindspots of the grower.

Without a mass, participatory seed preservation process, we can quickly winnow out interesting traits that could prove to be useful in the future. The USDA has collected seed from around the world. In every war, occupation, exploration there have always been agronomists present to bring seeds back to the US. Many times the cultural context is missing, and the seeds are being distilled down to utilitarian terms-how much protein, oil, etc. But for the communities who evolved with these plants, we are so much more aware of the nuances, and distinct characteristics as they relate to our foods and medicines.

Soybeans. Image courtesy of Kristyn Leach.

What do you think of the term "regenerative agriculture" which has been very popular these days as the term has also gained some criticism for (a) taking indigenous populations out of the conversation and (b) some actors misrepresenting the potential climate impact.

Yes, regenerative agriculture, organic, these are words that make us believe that this style of tending to land is relatively new. There can be an erasure of the indigenous wisdom and practices that are now labelled regenerative. In some ways it has shortcomings because these terms focus on methodologies, rather than shifting the base cosmology of how we relate to the places we inhabit.

Keep in touch with Kristyn through her various ventures here.